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Richard Kirwan
(Chemist, Mineralogist, Meteorologist and Geologist)

(1733 - 1812)

 

Contents

 

Childhood:

Richard Kirwan, famed for being a scientist and eccentric, was born the second son of four, in 1733, in Cloghballymore, Co. Galway . His family lived in the historic Cregg Castle which was built by their ancestors, originally for defence.

Cregg Castle, Galway.

Kirwan had an enormous affinity for books, and was constantly found reading, whether in his bedroom or up a tree. His father Martin Kirwan died when he was just eight years old. As a result, he developed a particularly close relationship with his mother.

When he was young, he was sent to live with his Grandfather Patrick French, where he was tutored by a Dominican Friar, Nicholas Nelly. When his grandfather died, Richard was sent to Erasmus Smith school in Galway, with his younger brothers. Catholics at this time, were, virtually excluded from British Universities, and in 1745 Richard's elder brother had been sent to Poitiers, France to complete his education; five years later Kirwan was sent to join him.

While in France, Kirwan began to develop an interest in chemistry . However, he had a great reluctance to learn french. One of his tutors on discovering that he spent the majority of his leisure time reading chemistry books, removed them, and replaced them with chemical works in french. As a result, Kirwan's french improved dramatically.

In 1754, he left Poitiers, and joined a Jesuit order. However, he abandoned his studies for the priesthood in 1755 and returned to Ireland. He was called to the Irish bar in 1766 but gave up law just two years later, when his brother was killed in a duel. he returned home to take on the family estate. There he continued developing his love of science, through the many books on Chemistry in the vast library at his home.

In 1757, in a step towards respectability, he married Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas Blake of Menlo, Co.Galway. She died eight years later, leaving him two daughters. Part of his attraction to Anne was a considerable dowry of 4,000. However, he did not know that Anne had run up pre-nuptial debts that vast exceeded this sum. No sooner were they married but he was dragged away to jail, as he was now legally responsible for his wife's affairs, where he remained until the debts were paid.

 

Achievements:

Kirwan spent 10 years in London from 1777 to 1787, where he soon established a reputation as a scientist. He was known as a laborious experimenter, and a strenuous supporter to the last of the Phlogiston Theory . He returned to Ireland in 1787 and his "Essay on Phlogiston", Kirwan's best-known work, was published that year.

He devoted much time and attention to the advancement of the study of meteorology , and constructed a table showing the temperature of every latitude between the Equator and the Poles. His "Elements of Mineralogy" was the first systematic work on the subject in English, and was translated into french also. He also published "Thoughts on Magnetism" and his views in relation to the Aurora Borealis .

Aurora Borealis

Throughout his life he contributed to chemistry geology , meteorology and mineralogy to which he is given the merit of first introducing the study into Ireland. He carried out experiments on the properties of carbon in mineral coal and wrote essays on the analysis of soils and the nature of manures.

He became President of the Royal Irish Academy , in 1799, a post he held until his death. In 1801, he was elected President of the Dublin Library Society.

 

United Irishmen:

Some evidence suggests that Kirwan was a member of the United Irishmen in the 1790s, though this is not certain. What is certain however, is that he befriended some of the leading figures in the movement. One of these people was Archibald Hamilton Rowan, William Rowan Hamilton 's father, who was imprisoned in 1794, but escaped to France.

 

Health:

Kirwan suffered from a condition called dysphagia , which meant he could not eat comfortably, as swallowing induced convulsive movements. As a result his diet was simple, consisting mainly of milk and ham. Due to the facial contortions which accompanied the swallowing of food, he always dined alone, whether in his own home or visiting friends.

 

Later life:

Kirwan's day was one of strict routine; he woke very early and retired early. He had strict rules which his visitors were obliged to follow. He had on particular evenings, a certain time allotted when guests could call, after which time the door knocker was removed and no-one else was admitted.

As he grew older he became more and more eccentric, developing some strange habits. He took to patroling the grounds of his estate with his large dogs, Irish wolfhounds , and greyhounds. He had a liking for large dogs since the time he had been rescued from an attack of six mad boars, by an irish wolfhound. Also, on these walks, one could often see an eagle perched on his shoulder. He had created a fierce devotion in this creature for himself, and was devastated when someone shot it as it swooped down onto Kirwan's shoulder, thinking it was going to attack him.

Richard Kirwan was also greatly concerned with catching a cold. It was this concern that finally killed him. He always felt the cold, and thus developed a ritual before leaving the house. This consisted of wrapping himself up in a huge cloak and hat and several wooly scarves. Then just before going outside he would stand in front of the fire fanning himself, in an effort to retain heat. Once outside, he would trot along the street; anyone wishing to speak with him, was obliged to run along beside him.

Kirwan also had an interest in law, music and theology. He was born a catholic, later became a member of the Church of England and died a Ulitarian.

He died in 1812 at the age of 79. In a speech to the Royal Irish Academy, Dr. Wm. Pickells had this to say about Richard Kirwan

"The gratitude of mankind will attest his services; and history; in tracing the progress of those sciences which he cultivated, and to the prosecution of which by others he gave so powerful an impulse, will perpetuate to late posterity the honours of his name".